Little Italy

Gabriele Marcotti explores the stories of some of the less celebrated Italian imports

There is a world beyond that of the Zolas and Dii Canios, one generally inhabited by Italian foot­balling refugees who, rarely by choice, take the plunge into the muddy waters of non-Premiership Britain. It is difficult to categorise them, beyond the fact that all had very compelling reasons to leave the world of calcio. Why else would you walk away?

It’s rarely the career opportunities which lower division football affords. Most It­alians drop off the radar screen  once they cross the channel (blame provincial attitudes back home). It’s not the money either: the guys who come over us­ually play for peanuts by the standards of many professional foot­ballers and, thanks to the continuing weak­ness of the Euro, the cost of living in Britain is considerably higher than in Italy. And obviously it’s not going to be for the weather, the food or the quality of life.

The most famous examples are “boy-makes-good” scenarios. Rino Gattuso fled Perugia because the only professional contract the club offered him was at the Serie A minimum: roughly £140 a week. He made a name for himself at Rangers, moved back to Salernitana and, less than a year after his return, was in the Italy squad, had a regular place at Milan and boasted a £10 million price tag on his head. “Rangers gave me the opportunity to show what I could do,” he says. “I wouldn’t say they taught me particular things, but rather they allowed me to free certain aspects of my game.” Like, for example, the frenzied tackling and incessant running (both of which were frowned upon at Perugia).

Enzo Maresca, formerly of West Bromwich Albion but now at Juventus, is another success story, though there is more to this one than meets the eye. He left Cagliari on a free transfer as a 17-year-old, despite the fact that he had been a regular at youth level for the national team. Why didn’t Cagliari do more to hang on to him? Why did no Italian clubs show interest? Actually, Cagliari did offer him a handsome deal, but he turned them down. Other clubs did not step in because of a gentlemen’s agreement among Serie A teams that they would not poach one another’s youngsters.

West Brom were thus able to strike a deal with Maresca’s agent, who knew full well that the player would soon be sold back to Serie A. Which is exactly what happened when he joined Juventus for £4 mil­lion in January 2000.

Others have had a much more difficult time finding a club. Alessandro Zamperini, now at Portsmouth, went on trial at no fewer than nine clubs, ranging from the sublime (Barcelona) to the ridiculous (Westerlo of Belgium). A former stand-out in Roma’s youth system, who burned his bridges when he slipped out of town for his trial at the Nou Camp, he seemed to have struck gold (relatively speaking) last March, when he had a trial outing with Everton reserves. The 18-year-old left-back was tearing it up and Everton boss Walter Smith was sal­ivating like Pavlov’s dog when disaster struck. Zamperini twisted the lig­a­ments in his knee and was stretch­ered off. End of trial. No contract.

He was fortunate to end up at Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth, where he won a starting place and scored two goals early in the season. Now 19, he’s still pursuing his dream and, at the very least, will be able to tell his grandchildren he played alongside the legendary Robert Prosinecki.

In Scotland, Dundee boss Ivano Bonetti established a haven for Latin footballing refugees last season. Per­haps it was because Bonetti was one himself. At the end of a career which included spells at Sampdoria and Juventus, he played for Tranmere Rovers and Grimsby (where he suffered the indignity of getting into a post-match disagreement with manager Brian Laws). Bonetti signed up the likes of former Juventus team-mate Marco De Marchi (whose last appearance was as a 36-year-old centre-half in the Dutch first division), Marcello Marrocco (a 31-year-old left-back with a grand total of zero career games above Serie C level in Italy) and the mysterious Alessandro Romano, another long-time lower division stalwart who, like his col­leagues, was unemployed.

But the most telling character here is the one who was already at Dundee before Bonetti arrived: Patrizio Billio. Billio’s story is a perfect metaphor for how football has changed in the past ten years. In the early 1990s AC Milan, then at the height of their powers, realised that buying talented footballers was becoming increasingly expensive. Hence, their brainwave: instead of buying the best available when they’re in their mid-twenties, let’s stockpile teenage talent instead. Which is what they did. They spent around £12 million (kids, believe me: back then it was a lot of money) to assemble what came to be known as La Pri­mavera Miliardaria or the “Billionaire Youth Team”. And Billio was the star of the Billionaires.

In one fell swoop however, the Bosman ruling eliminated the need for building youth teams and the diaspora began. The goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini is now at Chelsea.  The sweeper, Francesco Zap­pella, ended up at Mitsubishi Motors in Japan. The right-winger, Giovanni Maria Rassu, played briefly in Major League Soccer before retiring at the age of 26.  Another six are some­where in Italy’s lower divisions. And then there is Billio.

“I’m 27 and I’ve played for nine clubs in three countries,” he says. “And to think I used to train with Marco Van Basten…” Billio fell out with Dundee last season and is currently suing the club. Football is his livelihood, but he realised long ago he would never lift a World Cup or play in the Champions League. And that suits him just fine. “I’ve had the opportunity to travel, to earn my living playing a game, to meet interesting people,” he says. “And I’ve seen a thing or two in my time.”

When he was at Crystal Palace it was the comical sight of the interim man­ager Attilio Lombardo, who spoke little English, and the interim assistant man­ager Tomas Brolin, who spoke little Italian, trying to keep the Eagles aloft. At Casarano, he had to spend the night locked in the ground after irate fans laid siege to the stad­ium. And at Dundee, he got drunk with supporters. “I was suspended that week, so I just went into the main stand,” he recalls. “Everyone bought me pies and pints of beer. By the end I couldn’t see straight, but I had the best time.  Can’t imagine that ever hap­pening in Italy.”

Indeed.  Which is why as long as modern football continues to be top heavy in terms of finance and opportunities, we’re going to see plenty more Billios and Zamperinis.

From WSC 177 November 2001. What was happening this month